"Give him a
barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and my
word for it," a Democratic newspaper foolishly gibed, "he will sit ... by the
side of a 'sea coal' fire, and study moral philosophy. " The Whigs, seizing on
this political misstep, in 1840 presented their candidate William Henry
Harrison as a simple frontier Indian fighter, living in a log cabin and
drinking cider, in sharp contrast to an aristocratic champagne-sipping Van
Harrison was in fact a scion of the Virginia planter
aristocracy. He was born at Berkeley in 1773. He studied classics and history
at Hampden-Sydney College, then began the study of medicine in Richmond.
Suddenly, that same year, 1791, Harrison switched interests. He
obtained a commission as ensign in the First Infantry of the Regular Army, and
headed to the Northwest, where he spent much of his life.
campaign against the Indians, Harrison served as aide-de-camp to General "Mad
Anthony" Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which opened most of the Ohio
area to settlement. After resigning from the Army in 1798, he became Secretary
of the Northwest Territory, was its first delegate to Congress, and helped
obtain legislation dividing the Territory into the Northwest and Indiana
Territories. In 1801 he became Governor of the Indiana Territory, serving 12
His prime task as governor was to obtain title to Indian lands
so settlers could press forward into the wilderness. When the Indians
retaliated, Harrison was responsible for defending the settlements.
The threat against settlers became serious in 1809. An eloquent and energetic
chieftain, Tecumseh, with his religious brother, the Prophet, began to
strengthen an Indian confederation to prevent further encroachment. In 1811
Harrison received permission to attack the confederacy.
was away seeking more allies, Harrison led about a thousand men toward the
Prophet's town. Suddenly, before dawn on November 7, the Indians attacked his
camp on Tippecanoe River. After heavy fighting, Harrison repulsed them, but
suffered 190 dead and wounded.
The Battle of Tippecanoe, upon which
Harrison's fame was to rest, disrupted Tecumseh's confederacy but failed to
diminish Indian raids. By the spring of 1812, they were again terrorizing the
In the War of 1812 Harrison won more military laurels when he
was given the command of the Army in the Northwest with the rank of brigadier
general. At the Battle of the Thames, north of Lake Erie, on October 5, 1813,
he defeated the combined British and Indian forces, and killed Tecumseh. The
Indians scattered, never again to offer serious resistance in what was then
called the Northwest.
Thereafter Harrison returned to civilian life;
the Whigs, in need of a national hero, nominated him for President in 1840. He
won by a majority of less than 150,000, but swept the Electoral College, 234 to
When he arrived in Washington in February 1841, Harrison let
Daniel Webster edit his Inaugural Address, ornate with classical allusions.
Webster obtained some deletions, boasting in a jolly fashion that he had killed
"seventeen Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts, every one of them."
Webster had reason to be pleased, for while Harrison was nationalistic in his
outlook, he emphasized in his Inaugural that he would be obedient to the will
of the people as expressed through Congress.
But before he had been in
office a month, he caught a cold that developed into pneumonia. On April 4,
1841, he died--the first President to die in office--and with him died the Whig